Let me explain this article before you read it. It is an article that appears in the current (February 2019) issue of Dakota Country magazine. My editor there, Bill Mitzel, is kind enough to let me share my articles with my blog readers who don’t subscribe to Dakota Country or pick it up on the newsstands (although you should subscribe because it is a good magazine, and you can subscribe by clicking here).
As I explain in this article, I wrote a story back in December about Slawson Exploration’s big oil well development at the top of the boat ramp at Van Hook, on the north shore of Lake Sakakawea (you can read that one here if you want to). The folks at North Dakota’s Oil and Gas Division didn’t like it. They sent a letter to Bill, my editor, demanding he print corrections. Bill sent it to me and asked, “What should I do with this?” I said I would be glad to respond. So here’s my response.
Dakota Country Magazine
Badlands Watch – February 2019
Oil and Gas Division Defends Oil Company
WARNING: This article contains some pretty strong opinions and may not necessarily reflect the feelings of the Editor and Publisher of this magazine. It might, though.
I know, I know, I should be out on the ice, sitting on a pickle pail, pulling in perch, instead of sitting at a computer venting my frustration with the seeming inability or unwillingness of our government agencies to JUST DO THEIR JOB!
I could probably get rid of my blood pressure medicine if I’d just go fishing and quit ranting about the oil and gas industry’s never-ending rapacious onslaught on western North Dakota’s environment, while those who are supposed to be regulating them are probably, well, fishing … Dang!
Back in December I shared with you the story of oil giant Slawson Exploration’s big oil operation in the little fishing village of Van Hook, on the north shore of the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea. In that article, I talked about the 16 oil wells that have been drilled on the edge of Van Hook, 12 of them at the top of the boat ramp, which in the summer is one of the busiest boat ramps on the big lake.
I didn’t say very many nice things about the oil company in that article, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had gotten a phone call or a letter or e-mail from Todd or Steve Slawson (or one of their underlings) asking me why I “had it in for them” when they were such nice guys, helping out North Dakota by drilling for oil and paying oil taxes to help our economy. But they were probably busy counting their money — the Slawson family is on the list of “Americas Richest Families” with a net worth of $1.5 billion in 2018, much of that coming from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field.
But the reason people, especially the cabin owners who’ve put down roots in Van Hook, are concerned about 16 oil wells within just a few hundred yards of Lake Sakakawea (and their homes) is Slawson’s environmental record. It is one of the worst polluting companies ever to do business here. Two years ago, they were fined $2.1 million and forced to spend another $4 million cleaning up a mess and upgrading its systems to capture leaking natural gas at more than 170 well sites across the Bakken.
You read that right. Lawson had gas leaks at 170 oil well sites, creating serious air pollution problems all over western North Dakota.
Interestingly, it was not the North Dakota Health Department, or the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, or the North Dakota attorney general’s office, that busted Slawson for the massive air pollution violations. It was the U.S. Attorney and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that finally stepped in and made Slawson clean up its act. North Dakota regulators were nowhere to be found.
So why am I writing about this again just two months after my last article? Because the Slawsons did have one of their underlings jump in to their defense, with an e-mail letter to my editor taking me to task and asking the magazine to publish some “corrections” to “provide context” to the article.
Who was that “underling?” Well, it was none other than the new PR lady at the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, the agency that’s supposed to be regulating the oil industry and companies like Slawson, the agency that looked the other way when Slawson was leaking natural gas all over the western part of the state two years earlier.
Frankly, no one is surprised by that. Our state’s regulatory agency has become nothing but an apologist for the oil industry over the past half-dozen years, so when an oil company needs a defender, it just calls the yes-men (or yes-women) over at the Capitol and tell them to fix it.
The e-mail sent to me said, “These corrections are all based on information filed or made available to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources; we appreciate you publishing these corrections in your next issue of Dakota Country Magazine.”
Hmmm. Filed or “made available.” Who do you suppose made those corrections “available” to the Oil and Gas Division? Can you spell S-L-A-W-S-O-N?
So here, for your reading enjoyment, is the list of complaints Slawson’s new PR agent in North Dakota State government filed with Dakota Country magazine. You decide. The PR lady sent quotes from the story and then her “correction” on each quote. I’ll respond to each.
1. The story said: “Slawson is running four big flares on the east end of town, just a few hundred yards from the summer homes and a few year-around residences.”
Slawson’s correction: “The well pad where these flares are located had an original design plan to connect all produced fluids by gathering pipeline to Slawson’s central tank battery over a mile north of Van Hook. The Department of Mineral Resources as well as Slawson preferred this well site to be connected to the central tank battery where the natural gas could be transported and sold; however one critical surface owner would not provide right-of-way access to Slawson to construct the gathering lines which would have enabled the natural gas to be transported to the central tank battery location further north. As a result the production facilities and flares had to be constructed on the same pad with the wells.”
My response: Good God, that’s not a correction, it’s an excuse. But it did set the tone for the rest of the corrections. The story was right. Slawson is running four big flares on the east end of town (and you can probably expect to see and hear a dozen more on the west end by summer). And if Slawson had been serious about moving the flares away from the town, it probably could have found another route to the central tank battery.
2. The story said: “Some [gas] escapes, and you know what natural gas smells like. Worse than rotten eggs.”
Slawson’s correction: “Bakken formation gas does not contain either H2S or the odorant that makes the rotten egg smell described.”
My response: Have you ever driven by a Bakken oil well pad leaking gas? (Or driven through Van Hook lately?)
3. The story said: “The oil that’s being pumped through those new wells is coming from under Lake Sakakawea, as far as a mile from shore under the lake. Slawson drilled down a mile or two, then ran the pipe south under the lake to get at the oil, which is owned by the United States government and overseen by its agency, the Bureau of Land Management.”
Slawson’s correction: “All wells currently located on Slawson’s Torpedo Pad were permitted to construct as far north of the boat ramp as technology would allow while still allowing access to all of the minerals tracts leased. The spacing unit for these wells includes federal, state and privately owned minerals and the mineral tracts farthest out under the lake are privately owned. The Slawson Torpedo Pad has 12 wells capable of producing — five wells reach as far as three miles under the lake, the remaining seven wells reach two miles.”
My response: Slawson’s comment that ALL the wells are as far north as technology would allow is B.S. Seven wells are two miles from the oil, five are three miles. So then, the seven located two miles could have then been drilled a mile farther north, if technology indeed allows three miles. Further, I’d like Slawson to prove to me the exact maximum distance the wells could be located away from the lake and still gotten to the oil. I’ll bet all of them could have been a quarter or half mile farther north, in one spot, and still gotten at all the oil. That would be far enough from the boat ramp and the houses so that a blowout would have had little effect on the homes or the lake, and the noise and traffic would have been out of sight. And by the way, most of the oil Slawson is going after is federal. I’ll concede, not all. But most.
4. The story said: “The federal government will be collecting royalties on every barrel of oil pumped through those wells.”
Slawson’s correction: “All royalty owners within the spacing unit will collect royalties on every barrel of oil sold. This includes the federal government, State of North Dakota and private royalty owners.”
My response: OK, as I said MOST of the oil is federal. Not all. But the federal government will indeed be collecting most of the royalty money. Technically, Slawson got me on this, I guess. But does it really matter who is collecting the royalties? The reason these wells are where they are is because of the preponderance of federal mineral ownership under the lake. If Slawson was just going after state and private oil, it is unlikely it would have put 12 wells there, or anywhere near there. The fact that the federal government owns, and the BLM manages, most of the minerals, and the BLM was a willing partner, made all this possible.
5. The story said: “On Oct. 12 of this year, during the final stages of one of the wells, a blowout occurred, which has been the greatest fear of Van Hook residents.” And “… his greatest fear is what happens if a blowout occurs that close to the lake. Well, it happened.”
Slawson’s correction: “The incident on Oct. 12, 2018 was not a “blowout” as defined by industry or commonly understood by members of the public. During maintenance work 5 gallons of hydraulic oil from the top drive on the rig “misted” from the site due to high winds on location, resulting in impact to approximately 15,000 square yards of surrounding property. The incident report can be reviewed on the ND DEQ website here: https://deq.nd.gov/FOIA/Spills/Summary_Reports/20181016080554_Summary_Report.pdf”
My response: Well, pardon my “mist.” This is just semantics. The wind blew oil from the top of a rig. Sounds like some kind of a “blowout” to me. And as for the 15,000 square yards (3½ acres) affected by 5 gallons? Yeah, right. I suspect it was probably more than 5 gallons. A lot more. I’m guessing that was Slawson’s “estimate.” That’s all we have to go on. Oh, and if you look at that incident report that Slawson provided the link to, you’ll see that these 12 wells are located just 815 feet from a home occupied by living humans. The question we’ve been asking, and everyone at Van Hook has been asking, is: Why the hell was this development even allowed, so close to the Van Hook homes? You know who allowed it? The North Dakota Oil and Gas Division. That explains why it is so defensive about this story.
The young lady from the Oil and Gas Division asked that we publish her “corrections.” So here they are. I find it interesting that the agency that “regulates” the oil and gas industry is “defending” the oil and gas industry. As Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet,” “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Amen. Going Fishing.